Auschwitz Birkenau

After an emotional experience at the Mausoleum of Struggle & Martyrdom, wasn’t sure could handle a visit to the largest concentration camp. Remembering when family visited Dallas, a relative not wanting to see Dealey Plaza or where JFK was shot because it would be too sad for them I remember rolling my eyes thinking, “it’s history, important to learn even if unpleasant.” Although a concentration camp is a bit more extreme, I had to practice what I preach and go to Auschwitz. I am glad I did. The tour guide kept things moving along so I couldn’t stop and dwell too much, which was good for me.

Auschwitz (aka Auschwitz I) used to be Polish Army barracks before Germans took over. It’s the main camp, has the “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“work sets you free”) sign. Auschwitz-Biekenau (aka Auschwitz II) is a much larger camp couple miles away that has the gatehouse with train track image you always see.

  • For size comparison, Auschwitz had 28 prisoner buildings whereas Berkineau had 360.
  • Germans would notify people they were being relocated and told to bring 4 days worth of food and up to 25kg of luggage.
  • Initially people looked forward to going so they could work and make money. Murmurings of concentration camps being anything less than legitimate work opportunities were ruled out as Germans were viewed as practical – why would they organize and pay for trains to transport people just to kill them?
  • Train journey could last days, only place to sit was on luggage, bathroom was a bucket. Originally 50 people per train car but as time went on, up to 150 were packed in.
  • Personal belongings were taken upon arrival to a section of the camp referred to as “Canada”. Called “Canada” because people brought valuables (thinking they’d use at their relocation) and the Americas were viewed as prosperous. The Germans took anything of value, burned anything personal. These “Canada Warehouses” were subsequently destroyed by the Germans (along with gas and cremation facilities) to hide evidence of wrongdoing.
  • Correction, upon arrival they were allowed to keep one item…a belt…because they’d lose weight quickly.
  • I think guide said initially they’d photograph each inmate, but as cost of film and developing increased, they began using tattoos to save money. Also, as the death toll grew, tattoos were an easier way to identify the bodies.
  • Each prison uniform had a distinguishable patch so guards could quickly identify the category of prisoner. IE – political prisoners had a red triangle, criminals a green triangle, Jews a yellow star of David, Jehovah witnesses purple triangle, etc.
  • See bunk pic below, 5-6 people slept on each level.
  • Small stove in each building provided a little heat. And guess who made the stoves providing this heat, Volkswagen!?!
  • Prisoners woke up around 4 am, minimal latrines and clean water were shared among thousands of inmates. Left for work at 6 am, returned from work 6 pm.
  • A band, consisting of prisoners, played “peppy” music as everyone left camp for work.
  • Prisoners would be beaten to death for walking too slow.
  • There were brothels in Auschwitz!!!!?!
  • There was a torture/”prison within the prison” building for anyone breaking the rules or suspected of breaking them.  This included:  
    • standing cell – held 4 men who could do nothing but stand for days then be expected to work as usual. 
    • dark cell – cramped, dark, claustrophobic room with small vent in corner that froze over in winter, causing prisoners to suffocate as oxygen ran out.  
    • starvation cell – self explanatory.  Noteworthy victim was a Catholic priest named Maximilian Kolbe.  Ever hear of him?      
      • To deter escape attempts, 10 men were selected to be starved to death in this undergrounds bunker.  After one of the selected men cried out, “My wife! My Children!”, Kolbe volunteered to take his place.  After 2 weeks of no food or water, only Kolbe remained alive.  He was subsequently given lethal injection.  I think Pope John Paull II made him a saint.  
  • There’s also a Medical experiment block. I’ll spare details but interesting fact, Bayer bought Auschwitz prisoners to test an anesthetic!!?  
  • Gas chambers were designed as showers, inmates given numbered hooks to hang their clothes to make them think they’d be coming back.
  • Zyclon B was gas used to kill 2,000 prisoners in 20 minutes.  
  • Afterwards, gas chamber thoroughly cleaned of blood, vomit, etc as to avoid suspicion by the next group that came in.  
  • After liberation, many children couldn’t speak, didn’t have any family or know if family still alive.
  • 10% of the people liberated died within the first 3 months.
  • Picture of woman’s leg below is after 4 months of intensive hospital treatment.

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Woman’s legs 4 month after liberation of intensive hospital treatment

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